One evening last July, I returned from the annual winter school of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), sneaked into my room, dropped to the floor and, leaning against the door, let loose a flood of tears.
This went on for quite a while, longer than all the previous times I had broken down.
Any specific reason for this final meltdown? I don’t even know! That’s the petrifying part.
But, having spent 13 years exiled in South Africa, since 16 May 2010, I’ve learnt through personal experiences that when it comes to exile life, every day something will remind you that you’re living in a foreign country — and living horribly. Since then, I haven’t been able to go home as Swaziland remains hell for the majority of the people, and worse for democracy activists.
Since at least the 1980s, the Swazi regime has intensified its attacks on pro-democracy activists, forcing many into exile, arresting and torturing many, while killing others and destroying lives in its wake.
Political parties have been banned in Swaziland since 12 April 1973, when the monarch seized all executive, legislative and judicial powers to rule by decree. The sham 2005 constitution further entrenched the powers of the absolute monarchy, the last such institution in Africa.
This year has been particularly bad for the CPS, whose activists have been targeted by the regime due to the party’s campaign for a mass boycott of Mswati’s sham elections. In its campaign for the unbanning of all political parties and the holding of truly free and fair elections, the CPS has become Mswati’s prime target.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Mswati III — Terrorising the living and the dead for freedom of speech, expression in Eswatini
Like others before me, my student activism was viciously attacked by the regime. In 2010 I was president of the Student Representative Council at the University of Swaziland and a member of the Swaziland National Union of Students when we united all tertiary institutions in an unprecedented national march for free education.
Mswati’s police made their intentions clear when, in February 2010, they detained me together with about 20 other student activists and leaders for a whole day, tortured us and further threatened us with violence if we protested again.
But I wasn’t going to let Mswati and his police tell me to stop fighting for justice. To this day, it still shocks many, including me, that I had to escape the police’s clutches by jumping into a hearse as part of my escape journey to exile. The hearse was carrying the lifeless body of Sipho Jele, a member of the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), who had been allegedly murdered after being detained by the police for wearing a Pudemo T-shirt on Workers’ Day. I was one of the speakers at his memorial service and night vigil in Manzini.
I only found out later that the police had disrupted and stopped Sipho Jele’s funeral that Sunday morning. By then I was “safely” in South Africa. A few weeks later, four other activists joined me in exile.
But I clearly wasn’t ready for the tough life in exile that I’ve lived through for the past 13 years.
Living through continual crisis
Exile isn’t a choice, it’s but one of the many heinous crimes committed by the oppressive regime. The vicissitudes of exile life always throw everything at you, at any time, without expectation. You might be very careful and anticipate things, but something, I dare say anything, from an unexpected angle will remind you and drag your soul into the darkest night.
Exile isn’t a holiday or a mere excursion. It’s traumatic. Refugee status does not guarantee you security.
Imagine travelling by taxi. All of a sudden, there’s a police roadblock. If you’re a citizen, you might not comprehend this part, but I want you to try and fit yourself into my shoes right now — the unattractive and tired shoes of a poor foreigner who is beyond unemployable.
The moment the police stop the taxi, your heart starts beating faster. It’s even worse when they’re checking papers. You want to vanish into thin air if, say, your asylum-seeking permit has long expired, and the Department of Home Affairs’ Pretoria immigration centre hasn’t renewed it for reasons only the officials know.
Three times I’ve had to go through these police scenarios. Most of the time, I decide to stay “home” and not travel at all, especially through provinces, and not risk being whisked to Lindela Repatriation Centre, where “undesirable” foreigners are held before being deported from South Africa.
Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘I would rather die than go to Lindela’ – refugees speak out after high court sends them to repatriation centre
Let’s move on to another scenario. You apply for something online. It could be a job or something else. You’re cruising nicely all the way down. Well, until somewhere in the online form there’s the instruction “ENTER YOUR ID NUMBER”. And, of course, you don’t have an ID or an ID number — a real ID number, not the asylum number that gets rejected everywhere!
Imagine your life at this point if, for instance, online registration was going to open doors for you to improve your life. It’s a dead end. And I’ve hit so many such dead ends in the last 13 years.
Do you want to enter any building in town? That’s fine. At the gate, security needs to see your ID. Fine, you take out your asylum permit.
The security guard looks at your asylum permit, has a confused look on their face and asks, “What’s this thing?”
And now, everyone’s attention is immediately drawn to you and your huge brownish “foreigner” permit. It’s clear to all and sundry: you’re a foreigner. You see their eyes and they seem to be giving you that infamous “here to steal our jobs” look.
If only the security guard had been discreet.
Or then, imagine that you, the asylum seeker, and your colleagues, who are SA citizens, are watching TV, and there’s news coverage of a protest by foreign nationals. They’re causing “chaos” in the city.
“Mabahambe! (They must go!) We’re sick of them”, shouts one of your colleagues.
Others join in: “These foreigners think they own this country! Their arrogance drives me up the wall!”
And all the while you’re in the room, the two of you: you and your expired asylum permit. An “illegal foreigner” is all you are.
The only choice you have at this moment is to slowly die inside, because only you know the pain inside you as you take in your statelessness and the xenophobic voices in the room.
The thing about exile is that you might be living in a foreign country, right, but that’s just the physical. In reality, you’re stateless. And you feel that alone.
The overwhelming majority of the time, no one understands you, no one cares to understand. A few, thankfully, try to understand, even though they are not in your boots. They are the ones who keep us alive.
It reminds me of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who, after assessing the situation of the poor across the world, concluded: the working people have no country, but they have a world to win.
You have to find a way to deal with these everyday situations — and push away the ever-present thoughts of suicide.
Alcohol has proved to be the number one solution for many of us. There are other ways, of course. Some of our comrades, with the pressures and pain of exile, simply give up on the Swaziland democracy struggle and instead hustle for South African IDs, set up businesses and get good jobs. I don’t know which “solutions” are the best.
Exile drains the life out of you in subtle ways not properly understood even by its victims. As such, largely due to my statelessness, every day I go through what “native of nowhere” South African journalist Nat Nakasa perhaps went through until his suicide at the age of 28 while exiled in the United States, in 1965.
And thus, daily, with each step I am mentally writing a book titled “How To Avoid Suicide”. When all this is all over, I sure hope that my daughter, who I’m failing to raise due to exile, will one day get to understand all this, and I hope she won’t blame me for growing up “fatherless”.
And I hope the demons that live rent-free in my head don’t one day pressure me so hard that I don’t get the chance to one day sit down with her and explain everything.
I have written openly and in this way about my life in exile not so that there be organised a pity party for me and my comrades.
Having personally gone through the pain of exile, I have been able to get a better vision of what a new democratic Swaziland should be like, especially for immigrants, both documented and undocumented.
I have earned a better vision of how to build a humane system which allows everyone to enjoy the right to be human. DM